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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Nigeria

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  • Paul Zimmerer

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Life in Nigeria

Nigeria: Demographics

It is a matter of debate just how many people currently live in Nigeria; numbers vary rather wildly, but it’s estimated there are about 175 million people living in Nigeria. At the time of the last census, there were approximately 250 different ethnic groups in Nigeria, with many different languages, customs, and religions. Due to this rich ethnic diversity, the Nigerian identity is very heterogeneous.

The three largest ethnicities are Hausa and Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. These groups account for a total of 68% of all people living in the country. As far as religions go, a rule of thumb is that most people in the North are Muslims (with some regions having instated Sharia law), whereas the South is mostly Christian. The numbers are split up almost evenly, with 50% and 40% of the people living in Nigeria being Muslim and Christian, respectively.

Nigerian Languages

The variety of languages exceeds the ethnic diversity by far: More than 500 languages are estimated to exist in Nigeria. The three main indigenous languages, like the ethnicities, are Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. However, many ethnic groups speak more than one language. Although English is the official language of Nigeria, one cannot expect fluency from every Nigerian local. However, expats in Nigeria’s larger cities, such as Lagos or Abuja, should have no problem when speaking English with the local residents.

The Expatriate Population in Nigeria

As the nation is home to many international corporations, particularly those in the oil industry, people of countless different nationalities opt for expat life there. There are large expat communities of Britons, US-Americans, East Indians, Japanese, and Greeks; people hailing from Arab countries such as Syria and Lebanon are numerously represented as well; and many Chinese expats help improve everyday life in Nigeria by advancing the nation’s railway connections.

Infrastructural Challenges for Nigeria

Life in Nigeria is strongly shaped by the many infrastructural challenges of the country. Expats have to get used to frequent power outages during their time in Nigeria. Only about half of all Nigerian households (48%) have access to electricity, and even then, often only for a few hours a day. Even in the most prestigious areas in Lagos and Abuja, diesel generators are a common sight. Telephone – and subsequently, internet – connections are very patchy. This is why cellphones are hugely popular amongst the Nigerian populace (73 cellular subscriptions per 100 people).

Existential Problems of the Nigerian People

There are, however, even more pressing issues for many people living in Nigeria, such as the inadequate supply of safe water and the high prices of many consumer goods. For the 70% of the population living below the poverty line, the imported food Nigeria depends on is simply too expensive. Across the country, only about three in five households (64%) have access to clean fresh water, making life in Nigeria a struggle at times. Even in cities, this figure only rises to four in five (79%).

Nigeria is a country full of extremes, and, as is often the case in developing economies, the immense wealth of a minority comes at the expense of the masses, particularly in the countryside. The many infrastructural problems, including the quality of roads (see page 2 of this article), are a huge burden on the nation’s economic potential. Ultimately, they also affect the cost and quality of life in Nigeria.

Cost of Living in Nigeria

The 2014 Mercer Cost of Living survey ranks Lagos and Abuja as the 25th and 36th most expensive cities in the world for expatriates.  On InterNations’ own Expat Insider Survey, Nigeria is rated as the most expensive country for expats (out of 61 countries).

If you want a western standard of living, you have to pay for it. Rent, food, and imported goods tend to be the most expensive items, while petrol, local beer, and cigarettes are some of the cheapest.  Domestic help is also inexpensive, as are utilities, just don’t expect an uninterrupted power or water supply.

Given the cost of living in Nigeria, income inequality in the country is high. As mentioned above, seven in ten Nigerians live off no more than USD 1.25 per day. Poverty is probably the biggest challenge to face Africa’s second-largest economy.

Transportation and Education in Nigeria

Traffic Conditions

A word of warning: it is probably best if expats do not actively participate in traffic at all. The poor state of the roads and the break-neck driving style of many Nigerians can make even life as a pedestrian adventurous, to say the least. Missing manhole covers and large potholes in the middle of the street are a Nigerian reality, and considerate driving is more or less unheard of.

Nigerian cars generally match the quality of Nigerian streets: They probably wouldn’t be considered roadworthy in most countries. As a general rule, any vehicle that runs – however badly – is considered a reasonable form of transport, be it in bumper-to-bumper city traffic or on the overused, fatality-prone highways.


Apart from the potential hazards mentioned above, police roadblocks are very common outside of the city limits. Usually, you will be able to continue on your way after handing over a small bribe (or a larger one, should your counterpart decide that you committed a random “violation” of sorts). This can be quite intimidating, especially at night, as the officers will invariably be heavily armed. You are never in any kind of danger, but the sight of large guns alone can make many expats rather nervous.

Of course, this does not mean you should become a shut-in. Rental cars come with a driver; these experienced chauffeurs are skilled in bringing you to your destination, and they know how to deal with the aforementioned roadblocks. Their driving style is obviously as bold as the others’, though, so don’t forget to buckle up.

International Connections

The easiest and safest way into Nigeria is via plane. The country has four international airports: Murtala Mohammed in Lagos, Aminu Kano in Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe in Abuja, and Port Harcourt International Airport. The first is the country’s main hub. It is likely the first destination of many expats, if only for a changeover. The very popular flights are offered daily, sometimes several times a day.

There is the possibility of traveling by sea, but this option is often risky, not common, and not recommended. The overland roads lead through some countries that are routinely in a state of unrest and may thus be closed. Generally, traveling into Nigeria by car is to be considered more of an off-road experience, but there are, of course, also some roads of reasonable quality. Some of the border checks can be very slow, though.


Nigeria’s education system was introduced in the colonial era by the British, and it is still heavily influenced by the UK system. Six years of primary education are compulsory in Nigeria. Starting from the age of six, pupils are taught math, English, religious studies, science, and one of the three main languages of the country. Secondary school, another six years, is offered by a variety of federal, state-owned, and private institutions. Higher education can be undertaken at Nigeria’s many universities and polytechnic colleges.

The reality of education in Nigeria, however, is less rosy. Due to underfunding and less than motivated staff, the state of many schools and the general quality of education are rather poor. According to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2014, around 76% of children in Nigeria complete primary education, but only two-thirds of Nigerians aged between 15 and 24 (66%) can read and write. These figures are as much as 20% lower than other countries of a similar development-level. Many wealthy Nigerian parents tend to send their children to international schools in Nigeria or boarding schools abroad.

Expats with children might want to enroll their kids in one of the country’s international schools, which are quite common in popular expat areas. A comprehensive list can be found on the website of the Association of International Schools in Africa.

Safety and Crime in Nigeria

Travel Warning

Recent activities by militant terrorist group Boko Haram in Northern and Central Nigeria have made these areas particularly unsafe, especially for foreigners. Most foreign governments have issued travel warnings advising against traveling to certain Nigerian states, such as: Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, and other areas. The Nigerian Government has declared a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Please consult your government’s foreign travel advice before considering traveling to Nigeria, or check the UK Government’s Travel Advice website or the U.S. Department of State’s Travel Warnings website.


As far as safety is concerned, Nigeria has some serious problems, especially when it comes to the security of foreigners. Kidnapping of expats is unfortunately very common, as the perpetrators can often expect large ransoms from international companies. Muggings and theft are widespread, and home invasion is a near-constant threat, even in guarded compounds.

Again, expats are a lucrative target for criminals, as they are likely to be wealthy. It would generally be wise not to wander around on your own, especially at night.  Some areas of the country should be steered clear of completely in order to avoid problems with criminals or the Nigerian authorities (see below). The notoriously bad road conditions are, of course, an additional cause for concern.

The dangers of traffic in Nigeria are not limited to those we mentioned under Transportation and Education in Nigeria. Carjacking is common, so please remember to keep your doors locked and your windows closed at all times. Because of the oppressive heat in Nigeria, it is, of course, imperative to have a vehicle with air conditioning.

Corruption and Crime 

Unfortunately, due to the rampant corruption prevalent in Nigeria, you cannot assume every uniformed officer intends to protect and serve. Some might be looking for some easy money, harassing expats and compatriots alike. If you are confronted with situations like these, please just calmly comply. This also applies to muggings!

Organized crime in Nigeria focuses heavily on drug trafficking and scams. While very few expats ever come in contact with aforementioned circles, “419 scams”, involving upfront payment or money transfer, are directly targeted at them; the 4-1-9 refers to the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code forbidding the practice. Please be alert when receiving unsolicited emails, faxes, or letters asking for payment of any kind, or any offering large commissions for your assistance in transferring sums of money internationally.

Seafaring expats should be aware of the many pirates patrolling Nigeria’s coastline in search of oil freights. The danger of being commandeered should not be taken lightly: Pirate attacks off the coast of Nigeria are now more numerous than those off Somalia’s coast.

No-Go Areas for Expats

Many embassies have issued travel warnings for certain parts of the country. Apart from the obvious dangers for expats posed by criminals, local authorities might consider travels into specific conflict zones illegal and detain foreigners.

The Niger Delta is probably the most infamous of these conflict zones. We outline some of the dangers in our article on Moving to Nigeria. Things had slightly improved since 2009, when the government offered amnesty to militant groups willing to surrender their arms, but the area has now become a target of Boko Haram threats to attack oil installations and workers.

We realize that many expats work in the oil industry located in the Delta, so safety precautions should be thorough. Please see the warning at the top of this page and check the website of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office for new travel warnings.

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  • Paul Zimmerer

    InterNations is a fantastic community for expats and a must for anyone preparing to move abroad. I recommend it to all my fellow Germans overseas.

  • Stella Munúa

    This site is just what I was looking for when I moved to Lagos. Thanks for all the advice and support that helped us to settle in Nigeria.

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